by Learning Lab Fellows Phil Fahn-Lai and Kelsey Lucas and Learning Lab Asst. Director Lauren Davidson
Games allow an audience—the players—to explore a concept through constraints on their "moves" or through a sequence of events that unfolds over time and which might involve randomization or cause and effect. The goal with designing an educational game is to build a narrative into the game where players learn and build on facts as they play. Games tend to be good at conveying qualitative "feel," and less good at communicating large amounts of quantitative data. Games happen through time; players encounter information in sequence, and cannot always revisit specific details after the fact.
What Do Games Do Well?
- Games teach by doing. Games excel at intuitively communicating concepts that are difficult to convey in text or images. Games are able to bypass the filter of language, and connect players directly to a principle through hands-on, iterative practice.
- Games create empathy. Whether by inhabiting a character or simply by enforcing esoteric rules that have no meaning in the outside world, games force players to step outside of themselves and embrace unfamiliar values, priorities, and experiences.
- Games are explorations of cause and effect. Games are interactive experiences that emphasize freedom within structure. Players are free to experiment with different strategies, and are able to see how any given decision might impact an outcome later in the game. The ability to “game out” different scenarios within the parameters of the game world lends itself to investigations of complex, dynamic, interconnected systems.
- Games require resource management. Victory is often tied to effective management of one or more quantifiable resources within the game’s internal economy, for example time (e.g. racing), space (e.g. Go), various in-game currencies (e.g. Monopoly, Civilization), or some form of points that directly quantify a player’s performance (e.g. Scrabble, most card games).
- Games parameterize abstract problems. Many games are models of real-life scenarios. By paring away extraneous details and reducing an issue its essentials, games give players a conceptual scaffold on which nuance can later be built.
- Games make people work together. Both cooperative and competitive game incentivize interaction under a shared premise. Regardless of whether you’re playing with someone or against them, you’re still thinking about the same things for the duration of the game.
- Games are Trojan horses. Wrapping something in a game is a good way to create investment in a topic, by using the reward systems of gameplay to redirect an audience’s motivations towards something they would not normally be interested in.
What are the Components of Games?
This figure is adapted from designer Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (2008). It illustrates the four basic, interconnected elements that convey meaning in every game. Use this to start planning your educational game.
And here is an example of how this framework can be applied:
Oregon Trail makes effective use of mechanics (shopping, hunting, fishing, frequent player death) and story (the sequence of decisions made by players) to convey a sense of the hardships faced by settlers heading west. Aesthetics are present in the form of visuals, sounds, and the overall theme. Technology is of limited relevance, and exists solely as a delivery vehicle.